Though widely publicized as the quintessential college experience, underage drinking takes a toll on American youth. Every year alcohol causes an average 4,700 deaths in the U.S. among youth under the legal drinking age of 21, according to the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“Alcohol is the number one drug problem among youth in the U.S.,” David Jernigan, the director of CAMY and lead author of a new study focusing on the popularity of specific alcohol brands, said.
The study, published in early February by Jernigan and his team, presents the brands of alcohol most in demand by minors.
“This is a crucial piece of information for us,” Jernigan said, explaining that knowing the most popular brands may help focus efforts to curb consumption among underage youth.
Jernigan’s team surveyed a nationally representative sample of over a thousand youth (ages 13 to 20) on their alcohol consumption over the past month. Though 898 brands were presented in the survey, only 25 of the brands accounted for half of the participants’ collective consumption. This contrasts with the majority of adults, whose choices typically range to over twice that number.
“Our brand survey is the first time we can go directly to kids and ask them what they’re drinking,” Jernigan said.
The study found that of the vodka choices, Grey Goose, Smirnoff, Absolut and UV made up close to the majority of the market share at 46.8 percent. A similarly large proportion — 48.2 percent — was seen with the seven most popular brands of beer — Bud Light, Budweiser, Coors, Miller Lite, Corona Extra Light, Natural Light and Coors Light. Data for brands of rum, tequila and flavored alcoholic beverages were also found.
This study provides a new perspective in the campaign against underage drinking. Certain brands have been believed to market specifically towards youth, and now there is proof of the impact of these marketing campaigns.
Advertising strategies vary, but can have an enormous impact. A past study found that the three most popular alcohol ads among youth used animal characters as leading actors. Jerigan also recalls similar ad campaigns used in the past by cigarette companies to attract young consumers. For example, the cigarette brand Camel used an animated figure called Joe Camel.
“They completely changed the course of their advertising in the 90s — changed their advertising to a cartoon figure,” Jerigan said.
Between 2001 and 2005, there was a 41 percent increase in youth exposure to televised alcohol advertisements. Some radio advertisements for alcohol were scheduled to play during time allotted for youth programming. Certain brands began to distinguish themselves in these venues.
“We saw Smirnoff Ice aggressively marketing,” Jernigan said. “Even the makers of Smirnoff said [it] was for entry-level drinkers who didn’t like the taste of beer.”
Researchers estimate that 6.5 million minors are binge drinkers. CAMY’s website cites 14 studies that have demonstrated the dangerous power and contributions of youth-oriented alcohol marketing — the more advertising exposure, the more drinking. Further, underage drinkers are predisposed to becoming heavy drinkers later in life, with five times the likelihood of developing alcohol dependence or abuse.
“[Alcohol] doesn’t get the amount of attention it deserves considering the huge public health toll it takes,” Jernigan said.